In the West, we celebrate the New Year as a day of personal affirmations. We celebrate our successes of the past year, put our failures behind us, and set out our goals for the future. In Israel however, there are several different New Year celebrations, and Tu B’Shevat is all about rebirth and renewal!
Also known as "Rosh HaShanah La'Ilanot", literally "New Year of the Trees,” Tu B’Shevat is an annual holiday in Israel that takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. This generally places it near the end of January, falling on the 20th this year.
Tu B'Shevat is a holiday with a slightly confusing history. While some holidays can be traced back to historical events or were clearly created by a State power, the origin of the New Year of the Trees stretches back to the Middle Ages where, believe it or not, it had more to do with annual taxation and tithing regulations than any kind of celebration.
You see, back in the 14th and 15th century, the new year was marked by a "harvest.” Not a harvest of the fields, but of the wallets. This was the time of year when tax collectors went around and made sure everyone handed over their coin for the year (not exactly the most celebratory of events for the common man).
Over time however this changed, and the day began to take on another meaning. How this began is unclear, but we know that in the 16th century, the day was officially turned into a holiday, one that in many ways mimicked the Passover celebration. While the taxation schedule changed, the new year kept the harvest theme, but in the form of gathering for a meal instead of handing over cash. In particular, the meal partaking of delicious fruits while also planting trees to prepare for next year’s cycle.
This is where the modern incarnation of the holiday took form. Today, Tu B'Shevat is a minor, but happy, holiday that draws on both history and scripture to give it structure. On Tu B'Shevat, it is customary to eat snacks of dried and fresh fruit native to the Holy Land. These are typically selected from the "Seven Species” (shivat haminim) described in Deuteronomy (8:8), including wheat, barley, grapes (vines), figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (as well as honey as a by-product). With the inclusion of vines, wine is a popular dinner accompaniment for the holiday and a way of marking the day as a celebration.
It is also a day where nature and the cycle of renewal is celebrated. As people dine on the bounty of nature, they are expected to also contribute to it. This is done with a ceremonial planting of trees and other plants. This custom is particularly popular with schools and children, often becoming a major event where children raise money several weeks prior to the day to purchase saplings and seeds for planting and then take part in the planting process as an educational field trip. It is also an event embraced by many Israeli non-profits as an opportunity for growth. The Jewish National Fund famously used the holiday to plant thousands of eucalyptus trees to help stop the plague of malaria in the Hula Valley and continue to use the holiday to promote various projects and efforts.
Interestingly, while nature is the theme of the day, certain interpretations of the Tu B’Shevat stress the beginning for any kind of long-term commitment that is designed to grow. For this reason, the holiday is often used for the inauguration of new foundations, businesses, and groups. There are even some architects who still use the day to lay cornerstones for new buildings, a symbolic planting of another kind.
Tu B'Shevat might not be the biggest holiday on the Israeli calendar, but it is one worth remembering. It is a chance to connect with the land of Israel, to appreciate the beauty and abundance of the land and the blessings the Lord has given to the people of Israel. That’s an attitude well worth carrying into the new year.